ISSN: 1705-6411
Volume 2, Number 2 (July 2005)
Author: Paula Murphy
Review of: Bruce Fink. Lacan to the Letter: Reading Écrits Closely. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004.

…what are the writings of Barthes, Lacan, Foucault (and even Althusser) but a philosophy of disappearance? The obliteration of the human, of ideology. The absent structure, the death of the subject, lack, aphanisis. They have died of these things and their deaths bear the characteristics of this inhuman configuration. They bear the mark of a Great Withdrawal, of a defection, of a calculated figure of will, of a calculated weakening of desire. …It is ironic signs they have left behind, and the whole labour that is left for those whom they have sumptuously disappointed will be to make positive monuments out of those signs, monuments worthy of memory, of a juicy, intellectual memory, with no regard for the elegance and style of their disappearance.1

Because of the notorious difficulty of French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan’s writing, the numerous introductory books on Lacanian psychoanalysis are eagerly devoured by scholars of contemporary philosophy and literary theory, anxious for a basic grounding in Lacanian theory without the grueling task of ploughing through the primary texts. Many of these introductory volumes however, serve only to further obscure or worse, over-simplify Lacan’s ideas. While is it obviously not possible to synopsise several decades of writing in one book, or summarize the plethora of disciplines which Lacan has both borrowed from and influenced, for an overview of the principles of Lacanian thought no student of psychoanalysis, literary theory, or philosophy should be without Bruce Fink’s latest book, Lacan to the Letter: Reading Écrits Closely.

Without either patronizing or confusing the reader, Fink’s book provides enlightening commentary for both newcomers and experienced Lacanians alike. For this reason, although it provides an excellent introduction to the area, it is also much more than that. Fink coheres the divergent, unruly web of Lacan’s ideas through the underlying link of language, or more precisely, the letter. The readings that Fink provides, he claims, are à la lettre in two ways. Firstly, he reads Lacan literally to the letter, arguing that if one is prepared to undertake a close reading of the text, he is quite often not obfuscatory, but actually says what he means. Secondly, he reads Lacan to the letter in the sense that he attempts to understand him on his own terms as having an artistic, literary style of writing. This argument is sustained by Lacan himself, who often seems to have more in common with literary criticism than clinical psychoanalysis. Lacan criticizes analysts who over-use the word “analyze”, because they “no longer know what it means to interpret.”2 The practice of interpretation pre-supposes the impossibility of a definitive conclusion, leaving the text or the speech of the analysand open to “tensions and contradictions that must be read, re-read and pondered” but “[n]ot necessarily resolved.”3 Baudrillard makes reference to this aspect of Lacan’s philosophy:

Lacan, like some great simulator or seducer, at once practiced, intensified and ironized psychoanalysis, pushed it to the point where the postmodern, that is to say, where all interpretations are possible.4

From this point of view, Lacan’s double and triple entendres, his frequent, often bilingual jokes, and the repletion of references to prominent thinkers from all disciplines, can begin to be understood.  It is through the medium of language that Fink uncovers the Lacanian subject in this book, which is made up of two halves: the subject of the signifier and the subject of jouissance or enjoyment.  It is language that binds these two halves together in the form of linguistricks, a term which he defines as, “everything that, given the definition of language, follows regarding the foundation of the subject.”5

The difficulty of Lacan’s style is consequently a difficulty that has been imposed on his writing and not one inherent to it, argues Fink. Just as Derrida’s mode of writing is part of his quest to break down traditional hierarchical oppositions, so too Lacan’s mode of writing is a part of his philosophy: Fink describes it as “Lacan’s attempt to psychoanalyze psychoanalysis.”6 There are several ways in which his writing carries out this function. If one examines the way in which Lacan talks about previous and contemporaneous developments in psychoanalysis, it becomes evident that he is undertaking an analysis of the “whole history of the psychoanalytic movement”7 in the same way that an analyst would probe the personal history of his patient to uncover the underlying cause of his psychological trauma. On a more practical level, Fink points out that Lacan’s objective is to teach prospective psychoanalysts. From this perspective, much of his work can be understood as representative of the discourse of an analysand, and is expressed in this way in order to train its readers. This is why comparisons of Lacanian psychoanalysis with philosophy are not always productive, because what Lacan offers the reader is not a discernable philosophical system. Fink urges the reader to admire in Lacan’s writing “not the final product but the flow or process… its twists and turns, recursive style, and movement.”8 He does not purport to display a system of thought, as such a system expressed through the medium of language would inevitably fall short of articulating human experience, according to his own teaching. On the contrary, Lacan argues throughout his career that language is incapable of representing reality.

The position of Baudrillard and Lacan in relation to the meaning, or non-meaning of language is a similar one:

Lacan is right: Language does not convey meaning. It stands in place of meaning. But the effects produced are not effects of structure, but seduction effects. Not a law which regulates the play of signifiers, but a rule which ordains the play of appearances.9

Consequently, what Lacan produces is a body of writing and a set of ideas that are capable of organic evolution and whose borders remain permeable. As Fink states, “[t]o Lacan’s mind, a teaching worthy of the name must not end with the creation of a perfect, complete system; after all, there is no such thing.  A genuine teaching continues to evolve, to call itself into question, to forge new concepts.”10

This is the way that Lacan himself reads Freud: not by conceptualizing his oeuvre as a system which is gradually refined and improved, but by regarding all his writings as containing equal possibilities for development. A comparison of the ego-psychology movement with Lacanian psychoanalysis serves to illustrate this point. According to ego-psychologists like Kris, Lowenstein and Hartmann, Freud’s writing reached its apotheosis in the period before his death. Because of this linear determinism, they believe his later version of the ego to be the more correct. Lacan however, constantly reminds his readers that the early Freud cannot be discounted. His later writings “do not invalidate or annul his earlier ones: They build upon them in a kind of Aufhebung.”11 The comparison between Lacanian psychoanalysis and ego-psychology is revisited in Fink’s book, which devotes an entire chapter to the task. Although this is an aspect of Lacan’s work that has been discussed at length by critics, Fink brings a fresh approach to the topic.  Ego-psychology is a branch of Freudian psychoanalysis that on the basis of Freud’s later work regards the ego of a patient as an entity that through therapy can be coerced into a “normal” state. This is totally at odds with Lacan who professes that the ego is based only on an illusion of wholeness and that moreover this is only one aspect of the lack in being (manque-à-être) that structures subjectivity.

Fink describes with clarity the differences between Lacan and the ego-psychologists without becoming embroiled in the tangential arguments of the opposing sides that other commentators do. The summary that he produces is fair and balanced. He admits that textual evidence exists for the position of ego-psychologists and concludes the chapter by judging both branches of Freudian psychoanalysis as history did: the approach of Hartmann in particular led to little new theorization or research whereas Lacan’s approach engendered a vast amount of both.  While Hartmann “contributed to the effective death of psychoanalysis in America,”12 Lacan’s writings proved useful in practice.

Ego psychology is not the only contextualization of Lacanian psychoanalysis that Fink provides.  Almost every chapter contains some reference to the myriad of areas in which Lacan’s ideas have gained a foothold. These include philosophy, science, feminism, psychology, post-modernism, literary theory, algebra and anthropology. Such contextualization is important in a book that derives its impetus from Lacan’s use of language, as it is language which links his theories to these other disciplines and also paradoxically what makes it so difficult to categorize Lacan in relation to them. Just as he insists on a system (if it can be called that) which is fluid within itself, the very borders of that system seem to disintegrate when placed in an intratheoretical context.  While an investigation into the intricacies and interconnections of these relationships is not feasible within the gamut of this book, Fink does succinctly summarize the differentiations between psychoanalysis and some of the above, all of which can be traced back to language.  Whereas Hegelian philosophy for example, describes the subject in relation to knowledge, Lacan describes the subject in relation to lack of knowledge.13  This lack of knowledge emerges from the gap between language and reality, epitomized in the real: the order of being which is beyond symbolization of any kind. Lacan’s relationship to mathematics too, can be traced back to language.

His use of algebraic formulations is in fact unconnected to mathematics itself, but merely provides a concise way of expressing complex psychoanalytic concepts. It is, as Fink states, a “‘formalization’ that is unrelated to quantification.”14 But how is algebra related to language? Lacan uses algebra for the same reason that he co-opts topographies like the Möbius strip and the Borromean Knot: he is trying to prise his readers away from the allure of the imaginary dimension, which encourages us to put our faith in illusions. The mirror stage is the perfect example of such an imaginary illusion. During this stage, the child mistakenly believes him/herself to embody the image of unity and coherence in the mirror, even though the child still has no control over his/her bodily functions. Because of this, the subject will spend its life trying to make up the gap between actual self-image and idealized self-image that is created during the mirror stage, the ideal-I. The deceptiveness of the imaginary is also the reason for Lacan’s dismissal of ego-psychologists who have been deluded into apprehending the ego as whole and unified. It is difficult to break free of how we have been conditioned to view the world around us. For most, our “worldview remains perfectly spherical”, whereas psychoanalysis requires a “decentering.”15  It is in an effort to promote such a decentering; a different way of seeing, that Lacan uses diagrams and equations which are not easily graspable. Formalization gave physicists the opportunity to pursue non-image based, non-imaginary avenues of enquiry, and it is for this same reason that Lacan appropriates these formalizations for his own purposes. As Fink points out, “Lacan, in his attempt to get us to leave behind the visual, is led to the letter.”16

Although his emphasis on the letter would suggest a comparison with post-structuralists like Derrida, Lacoue-Labarthe and Nancy, his use of the oft-repeated phrase “the materiality of the signifier”, bears little or no relation to these later conceptualizations of the sign. Fink points out that Lacan stresses only the materiality of the signifier in type. However, this definition of the letter would seem to be tangential to his description of the letter which insists not on its materiality, but on its lack of materiality: its opacity. In this way, his definition of the letter can be seen to be a microcosm of his entire system of thought, the primary characteristic of which is its fluidity. Fink suggests some plausible reasons why Lacan deliberately developed such a challenging style of oration and writing, contextualized in relation to the original audience of his seminars and essays. The period in which Lacan taught was one of intellectual vitality in France and many eminent psychoanalysts, literary critics, philosophers and writers came to hear his lectures. It may have been for this reason that Lacan abandoned Freud’s didacticism and adopted instead a different kind of style, which Fink describes as “one that aims not at providing answers but, rather, at putting the audience to work.”17  In short, his writings are “performative, not demonstrative.”18

It is this insightful understanding of Lacan’s philosophy and how it is manifested in his texts that makes Fink’s book invaluable for students of his theory, since without this foreknowledge, Lacan can prove, as Fink admits “impenetrable to even highly motivated readers.”19 Flitting with agility between the linguistic, philosophical and mathematic aspects of Lacanian psychoanalysis, and even providing detailed explanations of some of his graphicizations, Lacan to the Letter is obviously the result of years of dedication. Yet Fink does not indulge in the unhelpful self-gratification of some commentators, but instead presents his thoughts in a coherent, orderly fashion, even managing to retain some of Lacan’s hilariously cutting humour. In fact, Fink admits with refreshing honesty that he does not profess to understand everything about Lacan20 , a confession that even the most learned critics of his work must surely empathize with. As Fink states, “[t]he day Lacan delivers us all the goods, all the answers, is the day he will have put us to sleep and put an end to psychoanalysis. Instead, Lacan always leaves something to be desired.”21

About the Author:
Paula Murphy is a Doctoral Candidate, Department of English, Mary Immaculate College, University of Limerick, Ireland.


1 – Jean Baudrillard. Cool Memories (c Paris: Editions Galilee, 1987).  London and New York: Verso, 1990:160-161.

2 – Bruce Fink. Lacan to the Letter: Reading Écrits Closely. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004:25.

3Ibid.: 42.

4 – Jean Baudrillard. “Interview with S Mele and M Titmarsh” (1984). In Mike Gane, Baudrillard Live, 1993:83.

5 -Jacques Lacan. The Seminar of Jacques Lacan: Book XX: Encore 1972-1973. In Jacques-Allain Miller (Ed.). Translated by Bruce Fink. New York: Norton, 1998:15.

6 – Bruce Fink. Lacan to the Letter: Reading Écrits Closely. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004:ix.



9 – Jean Baudrillard. Cool Memories (1980-1985). New York: Verso, 1990:6

10 – Bruce Fink. Lacan to the Letter: Reading Écrits Closely. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004:66.

11Ibid.:67. Fink translates this term as “a kind of simultaneous maintenance and suppression in overcoming”.